Thursday, July 26, 2007


I am on page 188 of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”—Chapter IX, in which the author speculates on the effect of the northern climate on the warlike Germans. It promises to be incredibly politically incorrect before its time. Chapter VIII was about Zoroaster. Chapter VII contains a felicitous sentence or two (among thousands) about the younger Gordian: “His manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with that of his father. Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation.” This sentence rates an explanatory footnote: “By each of his concubines, the younger Gordian left three or four children. His literary productions were by no means contemptible.”

I have not only resigned myself to Gibbon’s footnotes but embraced them, and am determined to follow in his footnotesteps. In one on Maximin, a barbarian who became emperor, we learn that Maximin was more than eight feet tall and could drink seven gallons of wine a day. “He could move a loaded waggon, break a horse’s leg with his fist, crumble stones in his hand, and tear up small trees by the roots.” In a footnote to a sentence about Maximus and Balbinus, the dual emperors elected after the murder of Maximin—“Their silent discord was understood rather than seen”—Gibbon quotes his Latin source, the Augustan History (“Discordiae tacitae, et quae intelligerentur potius quam viderentur”), and adds, “This well-chosen expression is probably stolen from some better writer.” And here is a footnote to the siege of Aquileia: “A temple was ... built to Venus the bald, in honour of the women of Aquileia, who had given up their hair to make ropes for the military engines.”

In a footnote to a footnote, Oliphant Smeaton informs us that the third Gordian was married to a woman with the wonderful name Tranquillina.

There are no Tranquillinas in our family, but the maiden name of my father’s father’s wife, my great-grandmother, was Mary Gibbon. I used to like to think that through her I might be related to the great Edward Gibbon, but that is unlikely for many reasons, chief among them the fact that he never married and had no children. Still, I am proud to be a descendant of Mary Gibbon, who worked in Cleveland’s grand hotel the Hollenden House, from which she is said to have acquired the family silver.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Paved Paradise

The first place I ever rented in Rockaway was a converted garage on Rockaway Beach Boulevard between 123rd and 124th Streets. It was on a beach block, meaning I didn’t have to cross any streets to get to the ocean. And it was right on the fault between alternate-side parking, to the east—No Parking Fridays, 8:30 to 10 A.M. (although the other side of the street was No Parking Anytime, so I guess technically it wasn’t alternate-side)—and, to the west, seasonal parking for a beach community: No Parking Saturday, Sunday, & Holidays, May 15-September 30. Many policemen and firemen live in Rockaway—and a mayor, Abraham Beame, had a summer home here—and I suspect they swung some sort of deal with City Hall to get these regulations, which insure that the neighborhood isn’t besieged by a bunch of DFDs, dragging their coolers down the road in the middle of the night and slamming their car doors, leaking oil, littering, changing babies’ diapers, and partying until the wee hours. The non-residents are supposed to put their cars in the lot at Riis Park, which, when it was built, was the biggest parking lot in the world. (These days, it is rarely full.) Residents had better have a garage or a driveway or driveway privileges, or they are screwed, at least in summer.

My bungalow was a detached single-car garage with a pointy roof at the end of a narrow driveway. It was behind a three-story house full of tenants, all with cars. The driveway was augmented by a parking pad out front. I never fully understood where in the drive I was supposed to park, but I did give the first-floor tenant, a family man, a set of car keys, so that he could get out if I blocked him in. (He did not give me a set of keys for his minivan. He had a nice blond wife, two demonic children, and two vicious Pomeranians.) Once I was woken by a pounding on the bungalow door at two in the morning: a tenant in the big house couldn’t find a spot on the street and was entitled to park in the driveway—it was a Saturday night, and he said he’d been driving around for hours. The family man had moved my car and left it in the other tenant’s spot.

I soon learned that if there was a spot available on the street in front of the house I should grab it to save space in the driveway. There were both a fire hydrant and a bus stop in front of the house, but the sign for the bus stop was missing, so people parked there anyway. Once, a woman who was waiting for the bus told me, “This is a bus stop.” I said, “But there’s no sign,” and proceeded to lock my car and leave the scene. “I’ll have to walk out in the middle of the street to get the bus,” she said, getting angry, and then she started screaming at me: “You don’t care, do you, bitch!” That shook me up (Welcome to Rockaway!), but it was true: I didn’t care, as long as I didn’t get a ticket.

I rented the beach garage for two summers, until my landlords sold the property. They had rented the place to me cheap the second summer, while the big house was on the market, because they hoped prospective buyers would see that the garage was habitable, and therefore a source of rental income. In the end, though, before the inspectors came, the landlords arranged enormous boxes cagily over the toilet and the sink, to make the place look as if it were used only for storage. The next summer, the new owners put up a tall fence around the property, redid the deck, fortified both the house and the bungalow with brick facing, and did in fact use the bungalow for storage. I moved on.

What a shock this year to see that the grandly renovated house had been demolished. I’ve seen plenty of ramshackle bungalows go under the bulldozer to make way for condos, but a perfectly good three-family house with a deck and a yard on a beach block? It was between a small suburban-looking apartment building of recent vintage and a bigger, older, shabbier apartment building. What were they going to put in there? A sliver high-rise?

When I drove by with some friends last weekend, to point out the spot, I was in for yet another shock: the property had been graded and paved and fenced in. It was a parking lot!

People are always raving in the Wave about the difficulty of finding parking in the West End, meaning those neighborhoods on and west of the parking fault: Neponsit, Belle Harbor, and Rockaway Park (sometimes identified, for real-estate purposes, as Lower Belle Harbor). They argue that Rockaway residents should be issued stickers distinguishing their cars from those of the DFDs and permitting them to park on the street on weekends. But this parking lot is not for them. I took a closer look at it when I walked past there yesterday, on a foggy morning, on my way to pick up my car from the mechanic's, where I had taken it for its annual emissions inspection (it passed) and its first ever tuneup under my ownership (it cost a small fortune). (I even remembered to ask the mechanic to look at the space over the accelerator, where a spritz of liquid has been unpredictably wetting my right foot.) The property has apparently been annexed by the shabby apartment building to its west, which has been renovated and given balconies and a new blue awning and a new name: The Ocean Villa. The pay phone out in front of it, which I had thought of as my office, is gone, and there is a new sign at the bus stop. The new parking lot has green plastic vegetation woven into a chain-link fence around it and a sliding steel gate that locks. Clearly the developer saw that no one was going to buy a condo here on the Rockaway Fault unless he put in a parking lot.

The parking lot made me nostalgic for my beach garage, where I let my cats out on leashes (they got chased by the Pomeranians) and grilled porgies on a miniature Hibachi and heard the low-flying planes on foggy days and watched a single apple ripen on a tree outside my door, and where I never came home to bad news (largely because there was no phone).

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Minor Incident

It was almost eight o’clock, and my walk on the beach had been cut short, first by the sight of a paunchy middle-aged bald man naked in the surf and, when I got past him, a strapping nude black man crossing the sand to enter the water, and giving me a full frontal view. What is a girl to do? I didn’t like to allow the two male nudes to prevent me from taking my accustomed walk, but I couldn’t act as if nothing was happening. Besides, if I walked past them, eyes fixed straight ahead, I would have to return by the same route, and suppose they were still there? Wouldn’t that look as if I were enjoying it, as if I’d come here on purpose to see them? Damn. Is this situation covered in books of etiquette? Does Amy Vanderbilt or Miss Manners have anything to say about how to behave when you stumble unexpectedly onto a spontaneous moment on a suddenly clothing-optional beach? I go to the beach at that hour to see the waves, as they break, lit by the setting sun, not to see (or to avert my eyes from) a couple of distinctly ungodlike men bobbing nude in the surf.

The breeze was stiffer than I expected anyway, so I turned back. But the surf was so warm and foamy—four tiers of frilly waves advancing—that, once I had put some distance between them and me, I decided to go in, too, in my bathing suit. And that is what I was wearing in the car on Sunday night as I cruised the Monday side of the street looking for an ample space to parallel park in. I passed a long-haired woman walking a dog, and heard my neighbor C. shout out my name with gusto, as if she’d been looking for me. I shouted her name in response, found a spot, and shifted into reverse, but as I was backing up, a black cat—Harley, I believe—darted out of the court and into the street behind me, so I stepped on the brakes. The woman with the dog had come up alongside me, and I asked her if she could see the cat. “I think he went under that car,” she said, pointing to the car behind me. I was so intent on not hitting the cat as I backed into the space that I forgot to be cautious about the space itself and smacked into the car. C. let out a hoot, assuring that this little incident would not pass unnoticed among my neighbors. Meanwhile the dogwalker was pointing ahead of me into the street: apparently the cat had shot out from under the car behind me on impact. He gave me a look over his shoulder as he ran up the street.

“Who did I hit?” I asked as I opened the door. The car behind me had its license plate dented (note weaselly use of passive voice) in approximately the same configuration that my front license plate is dented, but no glass was broken, and no one came running to elicit my insurance information. My car was parked more than a foot from the curb. I was barefoot, with a towel tied around my waist. “Where have you been?” C. said, looking at me (except that when she said it, it came out “Wheah have YOU been?”).

I said I’d been to the beach. I didn’t tell her about the nudity.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Gibbon on the A Train

Parking occupies me for only a few minutes a week these days, though last Sunday, when a whole lot of DFDs (that’s people Down For the Day) drove out to Rockaway, I had to go around the block twice before a van pulled out and left a space big enough for two of me. I’d have parked farther away, but I’d just done a big grocery shopping and bought a lot of beer substitutes (fake beer, root beer, lemonade, diet Dr Pepper—oh, all right, one six-pack of Carlsberg), and besides, in this case “farther away” meant “closer to the beach,” where I was even less likely to find a spot.

So I’m back on the A train again, commuting to midtown, and this year it doesn’t seem as charming as it has in the past. I aim for a window seat in the morning, and gaze out over the bay and the houses on stilts. I’ve seen egrets, swans, geese, cormorants, red-winged blackbirds, and gulls gulls gulls, including some baby seagulls—puffy gray chicks about the size of softballs—on the island the train goes over, which is basically a seagull hatchery. Some days Jamaica Bay has the aspect of a mirage, with an airport instead of palm trees. When the train goes underground, about a third of the way into the hour-and-a-quarter trip, I open a book.

The three-volume Modern Library edition of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” has been sitting on my shelf for something like twenty years. I don’t know what I was waiting for—a period of convalescence following a bunionectomy, I suppose—but I finally decided to crack it. Volume I has 956 pages, and I’d need a baby scale to weigh it. I’m on page 78 (Commodus, in 180 A.D.—the beginning of the end). Already the cover flap has split along the folds—it’s a rugged commute—so I removed it and left it at home.

For years I have been hearing about Gibbon’s prose style, his mastery of the periodic sentence. Yes, the sentences are clear and balanced—I find myself reading them twice—but the punctuation is killing me. It must have been the fashion in Gibbon’s day (he was a contemporary of Samuel Johnson, writing in the second half of the eighteenth century) to poke in a comma whenever one ran short of breath, even if it separated the subject from the verb. For instance: “The narrow policy of preserving, without any foreign mixture, the pure blood of the ancient citizens, had checked the fortune, and hastened the ruin, of Athens and Sparta.” And: “Happily for the repose of mankind, the moderate system recommended by the wisdom of Augustus, was adopted by the fears and vices of his immediate successors.” And just one more (among thousands), also about Augustus: “A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition, prompted him, at the age of nineteen, to assume the mask of hypocrisy, which he never afterwards laid aside.”

I am also frustrated by the footnotes. Chapter I has ninety-six of them, waving like seaweed at the bottom of the page. I tried skimming them in advance to determine whether there was anything down there worth interrupting myself for. Many of them are simply Gibbon crediting his sources, but others add sly little notes in a voice reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock (M. de Voltaire, "unsupported by either fact or probability, has generously bestowed the Canary Islands on the Roman empire”; “Mr. Pope, without perceiving it, has improved the theology of Homer”). Others, in brackets and signed O.S., take issue with the author (“Gibbon’s account of the military system of the Romans contains several errors that must be corrected”; “Gibbon’s remark here is wholly incorrect”). At first, these uppity editorial comments made me grit my teeth, but I softened when I found out, from a modest note on the copyright page, that the initials O.S. stand for Oliphant Smeaton. Yet other footnotes are entirely in Latin, a language in which I am, unfortunately, illiterate. I find myself wishing these footnotes had footnotes.

I am not sure if I'm going to persist with Gibbon, but I'm already superstitious about lugging him around: the day I give up and leave him at home, my train will get stuck between stations and I'll need something interminable. Yesterday on the train I was disturbed by murmuring behind me: a woman was reading aloud, in Spanish, from a prayer book with oversize type ("del SeƱor ... oramos ... Ave Maria"). Another woman was holding up a volume about the same size as mine, labelled “Holy Bible.” On the way home, I squeezed into a window seat next to a guy who was playing a handheld video boxing game. I opened my Gibbon; he changed seats.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Envious Parker

Well, it’s official: a parking spot in Manhattan now costs as much as an apartment. The New York Times ran a front-page story today about five parking spaces in the basement of a condo in Chelsea that are going for $225,000 apiece, plus maintenance (For Parking Spot, the Price is Right at $56,250 a Tire). A photo shows three beautiful children (they are models) beaming from the back seat of their equally photogenic mother’s car: poster children for the high cost of parking.

There are a lot of ways to react to this story. One could begin by pointing out that the parking space costs about ten times more than the car (or, if you’re talking about my car, a hundred times more). Or one could dwell obsessively on the economics of the poster children’s careers. (Would there be anything left over from their modelling fees once Mom deducted the cost of parking? Can you get a mortgage on a parking spot? How about air rights? What about residuals?) One could certainly admire the couple farther down in the article who had the foresight to buy three condo parking spots in Long Island City for $50,000 apiece, which seems like a bargain, and could be a gold mine if Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion-pricing plan goes through (which seems unlikely, but I find myself rooting for him). Or one could lament the fact that the Alternate Side Parker is simply not a player in these high-stakes parking games. But I seem to have read somewhere that envy is a great evil ("Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s parking spot"), so I might just as well feel lucky to be out of the running for the city's most expensive parking spot.

The really striking thing, though, is not so much the high cost of condo parking as it is the fact that even if you can afford it, you can’t buy it. There simply aren’t enough spots to go around.

My flirtation with paying for parking went as far as stopping last spring at a charming little garage near me and asking how much it would cost to park. The answer was "Forget about it—$400 a month—but there isn’t a spot available." I consoled myself for this rejection with the thought that I was saving $400 a month, which, in the inimitable logic of personal finance, meant that I had $400 a month extra to spend. So now I’m saving $225,000, plus the mortgage interest, plus $600 a year in maintenance . . . I think I could just about retire on that.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

When in Rockaway

Unfortunately, there are many summer activities in Rockaway that exclude me and from which I am exempt, thank God. For instance, I need not participate in, or even observe, the Bikini Contest, which takes place on a Wednesday night in August at Connolly’s, the best bar in the world, and is for many on the peninsula, including my neighbor D., the highlight of the season. There is also something called Hat Night, on Labor Day weekend. It’s basically a pub crawl that ends with a prize for the best hat and sometimes, if you’re young and restless, a new tattoo. And now there is Mustache Night, which is basically another pub crawl but on bicycles—from Connolly’s to the Lobster House, to the Tap & Grill, the Irish Circle, Blackwater’s, the Wharf, Jameson’s, and Harbor Light—with a prize for the best mustache. D. says he’d skip Jameson’s.

But I am not exempt from Friday nights. Last Friday, I met my neighbor the Catwoman and her husband, the master plumber, and D. at the Tap & Grill, a clam bar better known among the locals under its earlier incarnation as Boggiano’s, or “the old men’s bar.” I had Manhattan clam chowder and crab cakes. And a beer. And another beer. Then two seltzers with lime. (I was trying to pace myself.) And another beer. The bartender, a young woman who is also a neighbor, comes from a family of publicans. We were there partly because of her and partly because a band called the Loan Sharks was playing, and someone had heard that they were good. But the master plumber didn’t like the band (I think it was rockabilly; at any rate, there was a guy with a deep voice and a black cowboy hat), so after a while we went to Connolly’s, where everyone really wanted to go anyway.

Connolly’s is on the ground floor of a huge old gray-painted house, with a burgundy awning over the entrance and benches outside and glossy dark-wood booths and a dartboard, and Guinness on tap, and the cider that locals drink with ice. The owners live upstairs, and if you are really, really lucky, and come in with the Catwoman and the master plumber and D., who serves as bouncer on the night of the Bikini Contest, you might find your way behind the bar to the stairs leading to a very low door that you bang your head against (but only once) on the way to the garden. Connolly’s, which is open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day, gets really crowded late at night with lifeguards and surfers—beautiful people with deep tans and white teeth—so it’s best to get there early and be home in bed before the toilet breaks in the ladies’ room and the owner calls for the master plumber. (That night, only the sink stopped up.) When it was time to go, along about midnight, one of the four of us had to use the bathroom and the others had to wait, and by the time he or she came out, someone else had to go, and we had to wait again, and it was 2 A.M. and the place was jammed before we finally got out of there.

D. wanted to take the boardwalk—it was a beautiful night, with a waning moon—but C. set off up the Boulevard at a march, and I kept up with her, because we both had to go to the bathroom. We tried not to laugh when the master plumber, trailing us by half a block, suggested we stop at the Tap & Grill. We were going past a low row of attached bungalows next to the deli, and trying to be quiet and not attract any attention, because people were still sitting out on their porches, when a voice on one of the porches said “Hello” into a cell phone, and the master plumber said, “Uh-oh,” and —maybe you had to be there—we all cracked up. I leaned against the wall of the deli laughing. The master plumber stood in the middle of the road laughing. C. continued up the street laughing. I made it home and laughed myself to sleep and started laughing again the next morning when C. turned up outside my porch door to see if I was all right.

I was fine. I’d had two cranberry juice cocktails and one pint of Guinness at Connolly’s. But I can’t do this every Friday. At least, I don't think I can.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Fireworks for Shut-ins

The weather in Rockaway for the Fourth of July was downright blustery. My friend C. had a party, with hamburgers and hot dogs for appetizers, and all kinds of other foodstuffs (steak, ribs, chicken) as well as a cooler full of beer and hard cider. "The boys" had helped her set up a tent, which I knew was going to blow away, and sure enough: I got to say "There it goes!" and watch the tent, a big square gazebo type with zippered mosquito netting for walls, lift off and topple over the fence into the next yard. All the men ran to hold it down and beat it into submission. I was wearing foul-weather gear (somebody said I looked like I was in the cast of "The Deadliest Catch"), and when the weather got really good and foul I walked down to the beach. The ocean was lively, with waves way far out. When I got back to the party, everyone had moved inside.

Left to myself, I probably would have gone down to the bay and tried to see the fireworks ten miles away, in the East River. But I was with locals, who know better. You wouldn't have been able to see anything from the bay: it was just too overcast. So we gathered around the TV and turned up the sound and oohed and aahed. Nothing will ever equal the first time I saw Fourth of July fireworks, riding on my father's shoulders at Edgewater Park, in Cleveland. I swear there was one burst that turned into all little fishes.